A Conversation with Chef and Author Betty Fussell

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A Conversation with Chef and Author Betty Fussell, Editor Cheri Sicard spoke with Betty after she published her fabulous memoir, My Kitchen Wars.

Like many another hard-core foodie, Betty Fussell came to the food world by devious routes. A PhD in English Literature, years of teaching Shakespeare and assorted classics, a passion for movies and movie history, some prime time acting in plays and musical comedies, decades of travel through foreign countries, raising two children, hundreds of cats, and an ex-husband---none of these seems particularly suitable for writing about food. But in fact her love of the world's diversity found a focus when she put together her typewriter with her stove.

Fussell is a writer who is also a home cook, one who loves the sensuousness of words as much as the sensuality of foods. As a writer, she sees food as a window into the culture, past and present, of America. As an historian, she sees any meal as a way of eating history on the plate. As a cook, she likes recipes that are simple, improvisatory, fresh, and tasty, something anyone could do with no more than a sharp knife and a skillet and a few good fresh ingredients. Her many cookbooks reflect these interests, from her first Masters of American Cookery (1984) to her most recent Home Bistro (1997). She is best known for I Hear America Cooking (1986 and 1997) and for the epic history of the New World's native grain, The Story of Corn (1992), for which she won International Association of Culinary Professional's Jane Grigson Award.

A long-time journalist of food and travel, her articles have appeared in publications like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Holiday, Travel and Leisure, Cosmopolitan, Food Arts, Wine and Food, Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, Ladies Home Journal, Lear's, Country Journal and Vogue. A frequent performer on television, she is also a regular on the lecture platform at places as diverse as the Art Museum of Princeton University and the Dutch Treat Club of New York, with way stops at food organization conferences, marketplace demos, historical fêtes, restaurant dinners---wherever good food is eaten and people want to talk about it.

Celebrity Chef betty FussellCheri Sicard: I guess a good place to start this conversation is with corn. It seems like you're most known for your book The Story of Corn, which is, to say the least, an in-depth study. What inspired you to take up this subject?
Betty Fussell: The subject, which I took up earlier, was the question: is there anything that could be called American cuisine? Out of that came the book I Hear America Cooking. I ran around the country looking for regional differences, in the course of which I discovered that the one major food that united all the regions was corn. Since I had left out the Midwest, the heart of corn country, in the first book, because I was looking for immigrant cooking, I decided I had better center next on what was native. That's why it ended up being a book about Native America.

Cheri Sicard: That's interesting. On my recent trip to Japan, I had your book with me.
Betty Fussell: You lugged that heavy thing on an airplane to Japan?

"People who are not of my generation, who are younger, have no idea how isolated America was before World War II. After the War, we just exploded into Europe and everything was new and surprising. Since France was the traditional center of food, French food was a great surprise."

Cheri Sicard: Yes, and it was well worth it. Some of the Japanese people I was working with saw me reading The Story of Corn and they were curious about why there was such a big book about corn. I told them it was because corn was the basis of American cuisine. They said, "There is no American cuisine, American cuisine is just hamburgers and steaks." That's all it was to them.
Betty Fussell: Europe thinks the same way. Those places feel that they have a continuous history and therefore the only thing that can be defined as history is that which is continuous. But we are the opposite. It's two different languages.

{pagebreak} Cheri Sicard: The book was wonderful and there were a lot of facts that surprised me. In all your research, what surprised you most about corn, that you didn't know before?
Betty Fussell: What I didn't know was everything. I didn't know how complex, how ancient, how complicated this subject was. I am still immersed in it years afterwards because there's no end to it---corn is in everything.

Cheri Sicard: You mentioned the other book, I Hear America Cooking, and I know you traveled extensively for the research on that book. You must have some secrets or tips for finding great food on the road.
Betty Fussell: It doesn't work that way because once a spot is discovered, as in road food, its' over, it's gone within the next two years. It's very hard to find patches in our particular society that remain patches of regionalism. You can still go into Cajun country and find crawfish in season and find local dialects. You could still go into the Southwest and go visit the Hopis and do the pueblos in midsummer. It gets a little harder when you go up to places like Michigan and try to find...well let's see, when is that whitefish festival? We don't operate regionally the way Europe does. We are always looking for that analogy and the analogy is wrong. We have a dialogue between incredible mobility and the changes that brings, with pockets of ethnicity that are a little slower to change. Again, the model is neither Europe nor the Far East.

Cheri Sicard: So things change much slower in those countries?
Betty Fussell: Correct.

Cheri Sicard: I know you have lived extensively in other countries. Which ones influenced your cooking styles the most?
Betty Fussell: Obviously France, for everybody in my generation I think. People who are not of my generation, who are younger, have no idea how isolated America was before World War II. After the War, we just exploded into Europe and everything was new and surprising. Since France was the traditional center of food, French food was a great surprise.

Cheri Sicard: Something I found really interesting about I Hear America Cooking is how much the way we cook and what we eat has changed in so short a time. Things we take for granted were just unheard of even twenty or thirty years ago.
Betty Fussell: Unheard of in most people's mother's lifetime and certainly unheard of in their grandmother's lifetime.

Cheri Sicard: It's kind of strange, when I started this website...I actually overheard some kids speaking and one of them didn't know you couldn't make a cake that didn't come out of a box.
Betty Fussell: Yes. A friend of my daughter, I think she was still in high school, called up in a panic one night and said, 'Betty, what do you do for mayonnaise when you have run out of mayonnaise?'

Cheri Sicard: You lived for a while in England as well. What do you think of British cuisine?
Betty Fussell: Well, British cuisine has certainly improved since the 1950s when we spent a lot of time there. British cuisine has, in it's restaurants, always been mostly French. That is, the good stuff has always come from across the channel and been imported into England. People like Escoffier and The Ritz, that's French cuisine. The cache has always been French and still is, like the Roux Brothers in England. It's very hard to get good British cooking in restaurants. There's always been good 18th-century-based cuisine in country houses -- the good, simple beef and vegetables. And there's a lot of traditional homespun dishes like summer pudding. There's a kind of out-of-the garden freshness to good British food in the summer.

{pagebreak}

"What I love really is just to improvise out of the icebox. I love to look inside and see what's there and see what I can do to make something. If you are only cooking for yourself, it's a one-shot in any case. It's a moment of improvisation that is all the more precious for being unrepeatable. That I really love."

Cheri Sicard: We learned in reading My Kitchen Wars that you were a famous hostess, but what do you typically cook when it's just for you?
Betty Fussell: Just for me in New York City, and the place matters because I step out my door and I've got three great markets within a few blocks: Jefferson's and Balducci's and a discount one called Gourmet Garage.

Cheri Sicard: Gourmet Garage?
Betty Fussell: Yes. They are a chain now. I think they have three outlets in the City. You can get so much good produce now, but it doesn't compare to California because you really have a different system. In New York there are no good supermarkets, so you have to go to good specialty stores. Everything is available, all you have to do is pay for it. I limit my exotic component or my costly component. What I love really is just to improvise out of the icebox. I still call it icebox. I know other people call it refrigerator. I love to look inside and see what's there and see what I can do to make something. If you are only cooking for yourself, it's a one-shot in any case. It's a moment of improvisation that is all the more precious for being unrepeatable. That I really love.

cookbook, betty fussellCheri Sicard: I really love the book My Kitchen Wars. It's a really brave book, brutally honest. You lay your soul bare against the backdrop of your life's culinary experiences. How long did you have to think about this project before you decided to actually write it?
Betty Fussell: Well, I separated from my husband in 1980 and I think I was divorced by 1985, so I had a good long time. I took a good long time. I went through many drafts and I even tried hard to work this as a novel at one point, very early on, in order to avoid some of the obvious problems of a non-fiction memoir, where at least a couple of names have to be named. It didn't work. I don't have the novel voice. I have a memoir voice, I have a first-person voice.

Cheri Sicard: It's a wonderful memoir. It almost reads like a novel though.
Betty Fussell: Through the help of my wonderful editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Becky Saletan. We cut the manuscript mercilessly, which I really approved, because I wanted somebody to sit down and read it in one sitting.

Cheri Sicard: I did.
Betty Fussell: Well I am glad.

Cheri Sicard: Readers of My Kitchen Wars travel through quite an evolution with you. What is your next adventure?
Betty Fussell: I am going to do the equivalent of a sequel to "Kitchen Wars." It's going to be the idea of home alone, and since every year an increasing number of people, for one reason or another in America, live alone, I am going to kind of see how that's working and feeling -- some of its variety, some of its joys and some of its pain.

Cheri Sicard: That's a great topic and I know you will do it justice. Please let us know when it comes out. Thank you so much for talking with us today.


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I Hear America Cooking: The Cooks, Regions and Recipes of American Regional Cuisine by Betty Fussell (1997, Penguin (Non-Classics))

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